Uranium mining in 1999: Hard times continuing

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 

(December 10, 1999) The spot market price for uranium remained at low levels in 1999. While it was slightly above US$10 during the first half of the year, it later declined to US$9.70 per lb U3O8 (as of Nov. 29, 1999). Of course this has consequences.

(522.5118) WISE Uranium - The continuing low uranium price in 1999 had implications on existing operations and planned projects:

Energy Resources of Australia announced a decrease to 4,000 tons U3O8 for the production at its Ranger mine in 1999; Rössing plans to shed 200 workers at its uranium mine in Namibia by end 2000; Denison Mines reduced the workforce at its McClean Lake project in Canada by 40%; Uranium Resources abandoned its Alta Mesa uranium in-situ leach project in Texas; International Uranium Corp. suspended the mining operations at its Sunday Mine in Colorado that it had started only in late 1997, and it withdrew the license application for its Reno Creek in-situ leach project in Wyoming.

In spite of the continuing depression of the uranium market, three conventional uranium mills in the US which had been on standby since the 1980s, requested and received licenses to restart their operations: the Shootaring Canyon mill in Utah, the Cañon City mill in Colorado, and the Sweetwater mill in Wyoming. Their owners obviously had anticipated a rise in the uranium price, which didn't materialize then.

The change of ownership in the Canadian mines, which had been initiated by Cameco's acquisition of all North American properties of Uranerz in 1998, found its continuation in 1999: Cogéma acquired parts of the Key Lake uranium mine and of the McArthur River and Midwest projects from Cameco; Cameco became majority owner of Cigar Lake; and Denison acquired a further interest in the Midwest project from Cogéma.

While exploration expenditures remained low in 1999, one major discovery was announced: Cameco located high-grade uranium at La Rocque Lake in Saskatchewan.

New projects
In Canada, operating licenses were issued for the McClean Lake and McArthur River projects in Saskatchewan. McArthur River now is the first licensed mine exploiting a large-scale high-grade deposit (160,000 tons of uranium at an extremely high average ore grade of 12.7% U). The licenses include the controversial tailings disposal in groundwater in former open pit mines at McClean Lake and at Key Lake (where part of the McArthur River ore is to be milled). The McArthur River license was issued, although "Lucy Lake water and/or sediment concentrations of As, Cd, Cu, Ni, U and ammonia above guidelines or benchmarks are predicted to occur" during operation of the mine. The McClean Lake license was issued, although construction deficiences had been identified in the filter drains of the tailings pit in late 1998; the license now is the target of legal action by Inter-Church Uranium Committee.

In Australia, construction of the decline for the controversial Jabiluka mine (surrounded by UN World Heritage Kakadu National Park) in the Northern Territory was completed in July, and no further construction work has taken place since. Through intense lobbying, the Australian government achieved the Kakadu National Park not being listed "In Danger" by the UN World Heritage Committee for the development of the Jabiluka mine; the Committee posed a number of conditions, however.

Since the Traditional Owners vetoed the milling of Jabiluka ore at the existing Ranger mill, Energy Resources of Australia now is considering building a new mill at Jabiluka at costs of A$ 150 million (US$ 96.5 million). It seems to be unclear, however, whether the mine then would be viable under the current market conditions.

Traditional Owner Yvonne Margarula and her speaker Jacqui Katona received the prestigious 1999 Goldman Environmental Prize, worth US$125,000, for their campaign against the Jabiluka uranium mine.

The Beverley in-situ leach uranium mine in south Australia received final approval in April, and construction has begun. In November, several protesters who had tried to stop construction work at the site were arrested.

The environmental impact statement for the Honeymoon in-situ leach mine in south Australia is expected to be released in December.

Issues at operating mines and mills
International Uranium Corp.'s (IUC) White Mesa uranium mill in Utah (US) continued the processing of so-called alternate feed rather than uranium ore. In 1999, IUC received approval from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for processing of further uranium-contaminated material from old nuclear weapons production sites at Tonawanda and St. Louis. The state of Utah, however, fears that the extraction of uranium from the material is not the main purpose of such processing, but the final disposal of the residual material in the mill's tailings pond. The state therefore made several attempts to limit such processing of alternate feed; the current approach is to extend its Agreement State status with the NRC to the regulation of uranium mills and tailings. This would allow the state to regulate the controversial alternate feed processing at the White Mesa mill by itself.

At the Olympic Dam copper/uranium mine in south Australia, aboriginal and anti-nuclear protesters blocked the mine entrance in September. They raised their concerns about the lasting effects of the tailings dam and about production of uranium at the site which ended up as nuclear waste.

In India, the environmental hazards from the Jaduguda uranium mine and mill are gaining growing attention. It is suspected that thousands of tribal residents are at risk of contamination. A video by Shriprakash on the case was awarded the third prize at the Film South Asia 1999 Festival in Kathmandu. The Indian Supreme Court issued a notice to the Union and State governments on the uranium mine pollution.

In South Africa, the Council for Nuclear Safety estimates that at least 10,000 mineworkers, or roughly one in 20 mineworkers, have been exposed to radiation levels that exceeded safety limits.

Decommissioning projects
The cleanup of the 9.5-million-ton Atlas Corp. uranium mill tailings site at Moab (Utah, US) has continued to be discussed controversially. The pile is located immediately on the bank of the Colorado River, a drinking water resource for millions of Americans. The NRC approved the in-place reclamation of the tailings pile in spite of concerns raised for the water quality of the Colorado River. However, the funds available from Atlas are not even sufficient for the in-place reclamation. In addition, bankrupt Atlas Corp. now is to be released from the liability for the tailings cleanup: the NRC has selected a trustee, to whom the license will be transfered.

The cleanup of Dawn Mining Co.'s uranium mill tailings pile at Ford (Washington State) used to be a matter of similar controversy. Dawn wanted to cover the tailings pile with low- level nuclear waste to get at the money needed for the reclamation. Tension increased in January when the Washington State Deptartment of Health approved the nuclear dump on Dawn's uranium mill tailings. However, a dramatic change occurred in September, when Dawn announced that it had changed its plans and now would cover the pile with clean fill. Dawn had not been able to contract for the radioactive waste they had had an eye upon. This preliminary happy ending also led to Owen Berio, founder of the environmental group Dawn Watch, being awarded the environmental hero award by the Washington Environmental Council.

Groundwater standards at US uranium mill tailings sites most often are met by approval of "alternate concentration limits" or "supplemental standards" rather than real groundwater cleanup. The only site for which active groundwater cleanup was proposed in 1999 so far was the Monument Valley, Arizona, uranium mill tailings site. Relaxed groundwater standards were approved for the following uranium mill tailings sites: Sohio's L-Bar site (New Mexico), Exxon's Highland site (Wyoming), the Grand Junction site (Colorado), and the Lakeview site (Oregon).

The proposal of Western Nuclear Inc. for its Split Rock uranium mill tailings site (Wyoming) even goes further: it comprises the prohibition of groundwater use rather than the prevention of contaminant plume dispersion.

In Canada, the environmental assessment process for the decommissioning of Cogéma's Cluff Lake uranium mine and mill has begun; the facility has to be closed prematurely for unexpected (!) lack of tailings dam capacity.

And the Canadian Federal government has signed a commitment to clean up the Port Radium uranium mill tailings site on the shore of Great Bear Lake (Sahtu) in the Northwest Territories. The site had been abandoned in 1960. A film on the case has been produced by Peter Blow.

In the Czech Republic, groundwater cleanup at the former Stráz pod Ralskem in-situ leach facility is continuing. Contaminated groundwater is pumped and treated in an evaporator, concentrating the contaminants. As a stopgap measure, the evaporator condensate is returned underground into the wellfield, rather than processed into sale products, for unavailability of the necessary processing plant. This practice is foreseen to continue until at least 2006.

In Japan, protestors have dumped a truckload of radioactively contaminated soil from the former Ningyo-toge uranium mine at the doorsteps of a nuclear facility in December, to call for the safe management of the material so far "temporarily" stored on their lands without their consent.

Compensation of former US Uranium Workers
In 1990, US Congress enacted the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act to allow for financial compensation of health effects caused in early uranium miners and in residents living downwind of nuclear weapons tests. Although the drawbacks of the 1990 act have been widely discussed since, no amendment has been passed so far. At present, a study is being conducted among Colorado Plateau uranium mill workers, to find out whether it is justified to include the mill workers in addition to the mineworkers only covered so far. In November, an US Senate Committee approved a bill introduced by Orrin Hatch to amend the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act. The fate of the bill in the full Senate is unclear, however.

During a ceremony held on September 26, 1999, at Los Alamos, New Mexico, Dorothy Purley of the Laguna Pueblo received the Nuclear Free Future Resistance Award. For decades, she has been fighting against the Jackpile mine in the Laguna Pueblo Reservation (New Mexico) and for the compensation of former uranium miners.

Source and contact: Peter Diehl at WISE Uranium Project
For details, check WISE Uranium Project's web site at http://www.wise-uranium.org/